The sound of children crying for their parents has echoed from more than a million computers and televisions after the nonprofit news agency Pro Publica released on Monday a tape made surreptitiously at a Mexico-U.S. border facility last week. The children’s torment is unbearable. One 6-year-old doggedly asks for her aunt to be called and gives the number to any adult who will listen. Consulate officials try to console the children — estimated to be between 4 and 10 years of age — with snacks and toys, while a border guard is heard to joke: “We have an orchestra here. What’s missing is a conductor.”
[Update: June 20, 10:15 a.m.] Late Tuesday evening, AP reporters Garance Burke and Martha Mendoza broke the news that babies — infants in diapers — were being held apart from their mothers and that the Trump administration was opening a fourth facility for them. The so-called “tender age” facilities were revealed by attorneys and doctors; reporters were not allowed inside the up-till-now secret facilities, which were described as clean and safe. Some children were so young they could not talk; some were crying hysterically. Reading the AP’s report live, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow became so upset that she turned her mike over to Lawrence O’Donnell, who was in Brownsville. One of the centers was called “Casa Presidente,” according to people O’Donnell spoke with; another was called “Esperanza Combes.” They said at least 11 infants were being held.
The sounds are not unfamiliar to Carpinteria immigration attorney Marisol Alarcon. She told a gathering last week that she’d witnessed a boy traumatized by a 24-hour separation from his mother after crossing the border. “Her son was so traumatized that he could not bear to be apart from his mom while she was being interviewed,” said Alarcon. “He had to stand outside the room, and I could hear him crying.” Another volunteer at the detention center told Alarcon he’d heard cries of anguish and panic from people emigrating from violence. “All they wanted to do was not be killed,” he said. “The U.S. government is torturing immigrant children and their families systematically, as an official policy. I’m ashamed. I’m infuriated.”
The recording published by Pro Publica was made inside a detention facility and given to Texas civil-rights attorney Jennifer Harbury. She described her client as “devastated” by the weeping and crying. The children had been caught up in the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on border crossings and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s expressed intent to criminally prosecute all illegal entrants, stated Pro Publica, even if it means taking their children away.
Nineteen attorneys general, led by Hector Balderas of New Mexico and California’s Xavier Becerra, sent the Trump administration a letter on the internationally recognized rights of children to remain with their parents and protested putting parents in prison rather than immigration detention centers. “The policy is not only inhumane,” the letter reads, “but it also raises serious concerns regarding the violation of children’s rights, constitutional principles of due process and equal protection, and the efforts of state law enforcement officials to stop crime.”
More than 650 children were separated from their parents under the “zero tolerance” policy between May 6 and 19, according to a customs official testifying to Congress. More than 100 of those apprehended since April are thought to be younger than 4 years old, stated Pro Publica. Even Melania Trump is reported to have asked for more “heart” in border governance, a statement first made to CNN and widely reported from Fox News to the New York Times. Trump himself has stated that he hates the policy, insisting the law was “forced upon the nation” by Democrats.
The law is not new, but the decision to broadly prosecute all illegal entries is, according to Politifact. Previous administrations had detained families together and either sent them all back immediately or paroled them into the country. Trump administration officials — including Chief of Staff John Kelly, then head of Homeland Security — talked frequently in 2017 about separating families as an immigration deterrent, Politifact reported.
Stepped-up immigration enforcement hit Goleta last week when many people were questioned and five detained. City Councilmember Kyle Richards, who lives in Goleta’s Old Town where many of the raids were carried out, said, “Separating families with the intent of inflicting trauma on children is inhumane and goes against our values … [It] is wrong, plain and simple. The people targeted by these raids include integral members of our community, and I stand with them against immoral, racist, and heartless immigration policies.”
The aunt of the Salvadoran 6-year-old herself has been seeking asylum in the U.S. for two years with her 9-year-old daughter. Contacted by Pro Publica, she said there was nothing she could do for her niece, out of a fear for her asylum process. “It was the hardest moment in my life,” she said. “Imagine getting a call from your 6-year-old niece. She’s crying and begging me to go get her. … I know she’s not an American citizen, but she’s a human being. She’s a child. How can they treat her this way?” The aunt added that her town near San Salvador was dominated by gangs, but that the Trump administration has deported people victimized by gang and domestic violence. She’s kept in touch with the little girl, who’s been moved to a facility that has beds, by phone, but mother and daughter have not been allowed to speak to each other.